Every year since Jimmy Louis got stoned and thought up the idea of throwing a fish from one state to the other, the folks at the FloraBama have hosted what is now being called “The Gulf Coast’s Greatest Beach Party.” They picked the last weekend in April because nothing else was going on. Mullet tossing changed that.
Meanwhile, graduates of Clarke County High School have been getting together in the school cafeteria most every year since the 1930s to sample each other’s covered dishes, clog their arteries with the finest of starchy foods and talk about how things used to be. They call themselves the “Old Timers.”
This year, knowing that Mama would be the “Oldest” of the “Old,” a trip to the Mullet Toss was out of the question. I took her to Old Timers.
Over the years, Mama has adjusted to age and circumstances. No longer does she spend hours preparing some special something to take put on the Old Timers’ table. This year her caregiver, Alvester, baked the pecan pies. I picked up the fried chicken at a local fried-chicken place, just like most chicken contributors did.
You can get a pretty good idea of how Old Timers has changed over the years from the evolution of the fried chicken. Once the chicken was cooked at home on the morning of the event and delivered, still warm, on a platter that identified the cook. Time passed and folks began picking up the chicken, already fried, and putting it on the identifiable platter in the belief that eaters would think the contributor had actually cooked it. The ruse proved too much trouble to maintain, so today everyone brings their chicken from the store in a box and it is all dumped together in a big pan.
No one seems to mind.
Of course, there are still specialty dishes — like a particular chicken pie that only those early in line got to sample — and desserts to die for. The only complaints were from those whose plates were not big enough to hold all they wanted.
It was like an old-fashioned “dinner on the grounds,” except it was inside in a new, shiny facility instead of under spreading oaks, and there were no ants.
Every year those who gather pay homage to the class that graduated 50 years ago. This year it was the class of 1963. As the “Honor Class,” they sit at the head table and get to go through the food line first. They were also in charge of the program that, according to tradition, gets bogged down with memories and minutia and goes on far too long. By the time they brought on someone to bless the food to the nourishment of our bodies, my stomach was growling so loudly that I was afraid I would wake the person next to me who had decided to nap through it all.
As with any reunion, there are reminders of those who are no longer with us. The Honor Class always sets up a display with pictures of the departed, one of which, it was pointed out, has been on other tables when other classes were honored — including my own. He entered Clarke County High School with the class ahead of mine. We picked him up when he failed sixth grade. We lost him a few years later when he took time off for some reason or other, and on his return was placed in the grade behind us. Another break from his “studies” put him with his fourth and final class — a tribute to his persistence and to the teachers who were as determined as he was to get him graduated.
Social promotion, maybe, but with diploma in hand he became a contributing member of the community and a surprising success story for those of us who knew him “back when.”
It was good to see old friends again and revive fading memories. It was also a treat to see how Mama was recognized not only as the oldest, but for a fount of community knowledge that, without her remarkable recall, might well be lost.
I don’t know how many other communities have anything like Old Timers — or how many communities could. Grove Hill and Clarke County High School seem to have the right combination of people with both physical and emotional ties to the place and to each other to bring graduates back, year after year.
Besides, we are getting too old for tossing fish.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.